Texans with mental illnesses are dying in jail as mental health diversion programs go underfunded

An investigation showed that, in half of unnatural deaths in Houston area jails, the deceased had been flagged as potentially mentally ill.

By Sarah AschFebruary 8, 2023 1:30 pm, ,

As community mental health programs have faced decades of underfunding in the absence of adequate services, many Texans with mental health conditions end up in emergency rooms or in jail.

In the Houston area, people flagged as potentially dealing with mental health issues have made up almost half of all unnatural deaths in jails, according to the first investigation by a new nonprofit news outlet called the Houston Landing. The Landing found that about 46% of the 114 individuals who died of unnatural causes in the custody of Houston area jails since the 1980s had potential mental illnesses. 

Alex Stuckey, an investigative reporter at The Landing, said she started this investigation in part because of the families of those who die in custody.

“We see all these stories of people dying in jails, particularly Harris County Jail, and the families say, ‘My son, my daughter, my loved one was mentally ill,’” she said. “What I really wanted to do was take a look at, did anyone within the system know that they were mentally ill? And so what I did was I went through custodial death reports that are filed with the AG. I went through court cases for all of these individuals looking for mental health assessment orders, competency evaluation orders, if they had been assigned to mental health public defenders.”

One of the cases Stuckey found was that of Rory Ward, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. 

“He opted to live on the streets instead of staying in his mother’s home, where he was being forced to take his meds,” she said. “He was repeatedly picked up for crimes, mostly misdemeanors. He was over and over again flagged as mentally ill. But the last time he was arrested, though, he was flagged as mentally ill and a competency evaluation was ordered. It never happened. And he ended up getting beaten to death in jail in 2021.”

At the time of his death, Ward was incarcerated at the Harris County Jail.

Harris County has taken steps to address this issue, Stuckey said. The county launched a diversion center in 2018, where people picked up for misdemeanors can be sent – instead of jail – if suspected mental health issues are at play. 

“They’ve seen 6,000 people come through this diversion center. So it’s a lot of people,” she said. “The issue is that there are more people in the state now. There are more people who need mental health care, who aren’t able to get it. And so while the processes have gotten better, there are just so many more people that need that help. And so they are kind of slipping through the cracks of the community mental health programs and ending up in jail. I think this week about 79% of the people in the Harris County Jail have been flagged as mentally ill.”

Stuckey said this issue, like so many others, comes down to funding – especially after state lawmakers significantly reduced the resources flowing to mental health programs in 2003 during a budget shortfall.

“There needs to be more funding for these programs. There have been kind of interim, incremental steps as we’ve gone through the years. But we’re still really suffering from that 2003 cut. It really set the state back and it just needs significantly more funding that will, you know, align with the amount of people we have living in the state.”

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.